After almost one year on the road, a friend from home came to joins us for more than a week. Vera arrived in Miri directly from Switzerland. The next day we put her on a plane to Bario. Accessible only by air, Bario is a small enclave in the highlands of Borneo. It forms a flat, marshy oasis in the middle of mountainous rain forest. The area is inhabited by a tribe called the Kelabit, and is renowned for its delicious rice. We boarded an 18-seater Twin-Otter airplane for the 50-minute flight. Anne liked the fact that she could see into the cockpit, but was distressed to see that the pilots seemed more interested in filling out paperwork than looking through the windshield. The flat coastal plains around Miri were completely deforested. We could clearly see the boundary of Gunung Mulu National Park to our left as we flew by, as the surrounding forest outside the park had also been decimated. As our plane climbed into the foothills, there was active logging activity. The hilly ridges leading to the highlands were crisscrossed by muddy dirt tracks. We could see gaps in the trees where the forest had been “thinned”, and landslides where reddish-brown mud had slipped into the steep valleys, turning the rivers a murky brown. Rivers are the first victims of logging, and only rarely did we see the dark water that is the sign of a healthy riparian environment. The pass that separates the Kelabit from the rest of lowland Borneo appeared, and we flew straight over the “gap”, a narrow groove cut out of the forest. When the entire town of Bario converted to Christianity in 1999, the villagers made the cut to mark the occasion, a modern expression of an ancient custom. Its profile can be seen clearly from all over the valley.
The air in Bario is pleasantly cool and clean. At 1200 meters, it was neither too cold nor too hot. There was none of the oppressive, humid lowland heat. A family atmosphere pervades the place - everybody knows each other. People are relaxed and friendly. We went looking for Jaman, a recommended guide who runs a lodge outside of town. We hitched a ride on a motorbike from Joshua, a friendly local, who turned out to be a guide as well. After discussing options with Jaman, he suggested that we take Joshua on a jungle trek northwards to the site of a new national park, passing through some good forest and staying overnight in a shelter. We prepared to leave the next day.